How Avoiding Salt Can Help Your Headaches

Avoiding certain food triggers is a common practice for headache sufferers. But, have you ever heard of cutting back on salty foods to curb your head pain? Here is one study that supports salt reduction as a means of reducing your headaches.

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Study Summary

412 adults over the age of 21 with either pre-hypertension or stage I hypertension was randomized to either a Western diet (salt-rich) or a low salt diet, known as the DASH diet. The DASH diet consists of foods rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains and low in saturated fats.

There were three 30-day periods of eating in which the participants would eat a diet high in sodium (3500mg per day) for one period, followed by an intermediate level of sodium (2300mg per day) for another period, and low sodium (1200mg per day) during another period. The participants did not know the "sodium sequence" or whether they were assigned to the Western or DASH diet.

Please note that the average American consumes a high sodium diet, around 3400mg!

The participants had to eat one of the meals each day at the study site. Twenty-four-hour urine samples were taken to ensure adherence of the participants to their diet. This is done by assessing the levels of sodium and other electrolytes in the urine.

The participants then filled out questionnaires after each 30-day period to assess their side effects from the diet, including the frequency and severity of headaches.

What the Study Showed

Results revealed that those who ate foods lower in sodium—whether from the DASH or Western diet—had fewer headaches than those who ate higher sodium foods.

This means that cutting back on salt may help prevent headaches. The "why" behind this theory is not known, but it's not necessarily related to blood pressure.

So How Much Salt Should You Consume?

The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends 1,500mg of salt per day, which is about 3/4th a teaspoon a day of salt, not much! Other organizations recommend 2,300mg daily. The big picture here is not so much the number, but that we could all probably cut back.

Limitations of the Study

There were some problems with the study. For one, the study included only people with borderline or high blood pressure. In addition, the participants only filled out questionnaires at the end of each 30 day period. Finally, the study did not specify the types of headache the participants suffered from.

Overall, this study supports a relationship between sodium intake and headaches. More studies are needed to tease apart this association. Remember, a relationship or association does not imply causation.

Take-Home Message

It might be a worthwhile experiment to see if cutting back on your salt intake helps you prevent headaches. If anything, salt reduction is beneficial for your cardiovascular health. Speak with your healthcare provider first to formulate a plan of action.

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  • American Heart Association. "Sodium and Salt." 21 Apr 2017.
  • Amer M, Woodward M, Appel LJ. Effects of dietary sodium and the DASH diet on the occurrence of headaches: results from randomised multicentre DASH-Sodium clinical trial. BMJ Open 2014;4:(12):e006671.